Two Texans Join List of Potential Agriculture Secretary Picks

By Casey Wooten

The Trump transition team tacked on two names this week to the list of candidates for agriculture secretary: Elsa Murano, former president of Texas A&M University, and Susan Combs, a former Texas agriculture commissioner.

Murano will meet with President-elect Donald Trump after Christmas to talk about leading the Agriculture Department, Trump representatives told reporters during a Dec. 22 conference call.

Murano “comes highly recommended” and “her track record of running a major university really speaks for itself,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller told reporters.

Earlier this week, Vice President-elect Mike Pence met with Combs about a potential nomination to head the USDA.

The considerations come after speculation that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) could get the nomination has cooled. The agriculture secretary spot is one of the last major Cabinet positions Trump has left to fill, and with plans to interview Murano the week of Dec. 26, an announcement on a nominee doesn’t appear to be imminent.

President Barack Obama announced his agriculture secretary pick, Tom Vilsack, on Dec. 17, 2008.

Murano and Combs

Murano served as undersecretary of agriculture for food safety in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2004. Currently a professor in Texas A&M’s department of nutrition and food science, Murano has sat on the board of directors at Hormel Foods Corp. since 2006.

At the USDA, Murano oversaw the department’s food safety policies, including the Food Safety and Inspection Service, where she spearheaded efforts to secure the food supply amid fears of terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. At the time of her nomination, some consumer groups opposed her in part because of her support for food irradiation, which kills microbes in meat but some argued was unsafe.

“On its face, Murano would seem a good fit for the position,” consumer groups said in a 2001 letter to then-Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “However, we have become concerned with the nature of her work at Texas A&M, her ties to industry, and the distorted image of food irradiation that she has presented to the public.”

Combs has an extensive career in Texas politics. A former lawmaker in the state House of Representatives, she also served two terms each as agriculture commissioner and state comptroller.

A latecomer to supporting Trump, Combs originally backed former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina in the Republican primary. When Fiorina bowed out, Combs threw her support behind Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Heitkamp ‘Likely’ Staying in Senate

Heitkamp met with Trump on Dec. 2 in New York, but has since told a North Dakota radio station that she would “likely” stay in the Senate.

“I’m not saying ‘never, never,’ but I will tell you that I’m very, very honored to serve the people of North Dakota and I hope that no matter what I do that will always be my first priority,” Heitkamp said in the Dec. 22 interview on KFGO-AM.

Two other potential nominees continue to generate buzz: Sid Miller, the current Texas agriculture commissioner, and Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa farmer and entrepreneur.

Miller, a long-time supporter of Trump, has said he has been vetted for the job. Rastetter met with Trump officials Dec. 20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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